Bursting the Bubble: Is Soderbergh’s latest predicting the death of the movie theater?

Steven SoderberghMy worst movie theater experience is still vivid in my mind: Loews in Georgetown, 28 Days Later, opening weekend, midnight showing with girlfriend (ex now, if you care to know). Oh, it should have been scary and tense, horrifying and brilliant, but no, it was aggravating. Two drunks reeking of whiskey sat to the right of us, one snoring and the other one punching him every five minutes and telling him to wake up. A kid in front of us played a game on his cell phone and felt the need to hold it up, as if I wanted to see his high score. And the chatter: at times I couldn���t even hear the dialogue. I left vowing I would never see another film at Loews in Georgetown again (a vow I���ve subsequently broken).

Of course, that was only part of a trend. I remember during a screening of Bad Santa watching a couple get into a hysterical screaming bout a few rows ahead. And let���s not even get into any film where there might be kids in the audience ��� Star Wars Episode I (which was unbearable enough alone) was absolutely miserable to sit through with a bunch of uncontrolled brats throwing popcorn and candy at each other and shouting out descriptions of the action (or what happened two minutes before because their little friends with little bladders had to loudly run to the bathroom).

Director Steven Soderbergh (you might remember he did Ocean���s Eleven and Traffic, oh and this little indie flick called Sex, Lies, and Videotape) has brought to life a novel concept: his latest film Bubble on Friday opens in theaters and is released on DVD and is available on satellite and cable TV. All media, all at once ��� an cinematic assault, you could say. Talk about this kind of marketing has been brewing for years, with theater to DVD timetables growing shorter every year, but Bubble goes all the way. And I���m left pondering, is that a good thing?

The theater does have good memories for me as well. When I was a little kid I was always bugging my parents to take me to the latest kiddie flick; Labyrinth scared the hell out of me. My freshman year of college was when the Matrix came out, and my group of friends did very little else but go and watch it over and over again. We���d get drunk after the screening and do our best Keanus: ���Whoa���; ���I know kung-fu.��� Some kids in my dorm downloaded bootleg versions onto their computers, but they were philistines; the place to see the Matrix was the theater.

Then there was the Stanley Kubrick retrospective at the Uptown several years back. The climatic Jupiter and beyond sequence of 2001 was mind-blowing; a 20-foot-tall Alex from Clockwork Orange was frightening like few other things I���ve ever seen. But part of the joy of watching these films in the theater was to know I was sharing my awe with a room full of people. These communal emotions connected us all together in the dark, whether it was amazement at seeing the worlds of Tolkien come to life, or being at the brink of tears witnessing Schindler���s List. It���s incredible how connected you can feel to the human race, huddled together staring at moving pictures.

But the theater can also make you despise everyone on the planet. When someone holds an asinine conversation on their cell phone at a crucial plot point, or some hyperactive kid can���t stop kicking your seat, or the jackass in front of you is blocking the screen with his clown feet on top the seat in front of him, or there���s a creepy guy at the end of the row with the maniacal laugh and very odd sense of humor (is it funny that the main character���s mother just died?). They really make you want to find a desert island and live the hermit life (with a DVD player, of course, and maybe some choice Criterion Collection).

What about paying $10 for a ticket, then another $10 for popcorn and a drink, and then having to show up half an hour early to get a decent seat and sit through a half an hour of commercials before the previews and�Ķ Damn — I forgot what movie I came to see. All that crap when I can just sit at home with my Harris Teeter brand microwave popcorn (cheap!) and $2.50 DVD rental, slip my ass into that divot in the couch I���ve been molding for years, nestle myself under my favorite afghan (maybe even cozy up to a girl, get a little non-PDA make-out going on). Hmmm�Ķ Choices, choices.

Steven Soderbergh
Scene from Bubble

The irony of Bubble is that it���s the type of movie that true movie lovers go to; it���s a cinephile flick and you���re not going to run into the myriad characters who can easily ruin a trip to the theater. Indie film lovers tend to be polite, and the most annoying thing you���ll probably run into is some loser like me scribbling notes (sometimes for a review, sometimes just because I���m a dork). At the same time, Bubble seems like a very intimate film that somehow would be wrong to watch in a cavernous theater. Enjoying it in the privacy of your own living room, experiencing it with a few people your close to, seems to me more appropriate, and probably what I would choose.

The big screen these days is more reserved for spectacles, something like the special effects magic of King Kong or the gorgeous landscapes of The New World. But as larger, clearer TVs and DVD players (not to mention high definition DVDs) and super surround sound systems keep getting cheaper, I imagine it���s going to be harder and harder to convince people to come out when they can enjoy the spectacle pretty well in the safety of their own homes. Box office receipts have been on a steady decline for years now.

My guess is Hollywood will respond by delivering products bigger and flashier and louder, Michael Bay-style, with explosions every other minute (30 seconds?), CGI that pops your eyes wide as dinner plates, and sound that shakes your very bones. Going to the movie theater will be an experience that hangs your senses off the side of a cliff ��� and people will love it, gobble it up and want more. It doesn���t matter that your mind is too dulled from the sensory overload to remember the plot or the characters, but that hot actress who was in that other movie and who dates that musician, yeah she was in it�Ķ Going to the theater will be a numbing experience, novocain in celluloid form. Art house theaters will become fewer and fewer�Ķ What will us cinema snobs do?

In all of this bitching and speculation I haven���t really talked about Bubble the film, but the movie itself doesn���t seem to be all that important. It���s a murder mystery at a doll factory (which I find to be a creepy setup — dolls are scary) that was filmed in high definition digital video shot on location using local (read community theater) actors. It���s been getting mixed reviews, but all seem to agree it���s not Soderbergh���s best work. After the success of Traffic and Ocean���s Eleven, Soderbergh opted for the very-indie Full Frontal, which, while interesting and humorous, was slight, and it sounds like Bubble, coming after the unnecessary Ocean���s Twelve, is the same way. Nothing wrong with that; we should appreciate Soderbergh���s love of experimental cinema. It feels like American auteurs willing to take a chance are few and far between these days.

What I appreciate far more, though, is that right off the bat he���s left it up to me how I enjoy his movie, whether with the crowd at the theater or by myself on my comfy couch. Thanks, Steve.